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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

David Bowie "Suffragette City" Song Analysis

Here's a song analysis of a classic. It's "Suffragette City" from David Bowie's seminal Rise And Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album. I happen to know a bit about this record since I'm the co-author of the memoirs of Ken Scott, the co-producer and engineer of the record, called Abbey Road To Ziggy Stardust.

It's interesting to note that although Ziggy Stardust was a huge influence on American musicians at the time, it didn't actually sell that much in the US when it was first released. In fact, it was considered somewhat of a flop in the States, although a hit in the rest of world. It's also interesting that to this day, Ken can't fathom the impact that the record has had on us. He thinks the record is pretty good, but nothing special.

Ziggy Stardust was recorded at Trident Recording in London in 1972 before Bowie even had a record deal (he was being shopped at the time on the basis of an album he just finished - Hunky Dory). Although many consider this to be a concept record, it was like most albums are; just a group  of songs, that in this case, seemed to have a common thread almost by accident (you'll have to read the book for the rest of the story).

Like all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
"Suffragette City" has a pretty simple song form that looks like this:

Intro, Verse, Chorus, Intro, Verse, Chorus, Solo, Chorus, Intro, Outro (C Section), Outro

The outros are a different song section which you can think of a section C, with the second outro being a reprise of the first. All in all, it's a simple song, but both interesting and energetic.

The Arrangement
Like most great song arrangements, "Suffragette City" builds and breathes. The intro is big, with doubled guitars left and right, then gets smaller in the verse, then big again during the chorus, back down for the verse, etc. The song culminates with the loudest most energetic part in the dual outros.

The outros are interesting in that they take up a third of the song and are perfect examples of how to keep listener attention during a repeating part (in this case going back and forth between a 2 chord pattern). The lead and background vocals change every time the pattern is repeated (every 8 bars), and the synthesizer enters halfway through the outro section as an answer to the lead vocal.

The arrangement elements look like this:

  * The Foundation: Bass and drums

  * The Rhythm: Acoustic guitar strumming, 8th note piano

  * The Pad: Synth and power chord guitars in the B section

  * The Lead: Lead vocal, guitar solo, synthesizer line in intros

  * The Fills: Background vocals, synthesizer

Although the popular conception is that Bowie played baritone sax on the intros, outros and choruses, the sound is actually an ARP 2600 synthesizer, programmed by Ken Scott and played by Mick Ronson. Bowie has taken credit for the "saxes" in a number of interviews, but it's unknown if he just didn't remember or was being coy about the part on purpose.

The Sound
There are a lot of interesting sonic elements that make up "Suffragette City." First is Mick Ronson's guitar sound, which came as a result of a Les Paul into a wah wah pedal set at about half-way, into a Marshall Major. That's the classic Ronson sound.

The drums are interesting in the song as the snare is panned half-right and the kick half-left. This is because the song was recorded on 16 track, and the drum kit was frequently recorded either in stereo on two tracks, or with the kick or snare on one track and the rest of the drums on another, or some other combination. Regardless, the drums were recorded far differently from the way we do it today with each drum on it's own track, hence the odd panning.

The other interesting thing is how prominent the acoustic guitar is on the track, pushing the song along rhythmically, and almost serving in place of the cymbals. According to Ken, "I wasn't too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low."

Bowie's lead vocals are doubled throughout the song, going to a single vocal on the hook of the chorus ("I'm going to Suffragette City").

There's only a single EMT plate reverb on the entire mix, as that's all that Trident had at the time. You can hear it hang over a bit at the very tail end after the last chord of the song.

Also take note the legendary Trident piano pushing the song along in the chorus and panned to the right side. It was famous for its brightness, which was fantastic for rock or pop, but didn't work very well for classical music.

The Production
Like all records that Ken Scott has produced or co-produced (he produced Ziggy Stardust with Bowie), the production is typically excellent even though it was only his second stab at it (Hunky Dory being the first). The best thing about the song for me is the energy, which can be attributed to the number of takes by the band. David made it a point to never let the band go beyond 3 takes, and sometimes even two, so the players were always on the edge (this is with no rehearsal beforehand as well). Another interesting production fact is that according to Ken, almost all of the Bowie's vocals were done on the first take over the course of the 4 albums he did with him!

The background vocals (done by Bowie and Ronson) are interesting in that they move in the stereo spectrum, first starting on the left in the first verse, then changing to the right on the second and doing the same during the outro. All these little things add up to make the song both exciting and interesting, and as a result, a classic.

You can read more about Bowie and the Ziggy Stardust sessions in the upcoming Abbey Road to Ziggy Stardust book.


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

TY Bob, I actually found this eval very interesting


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